It seems a long time ago that I found myself at a Labour Party political conference. I have never been a serial attendee. As an MP it was a bit of a busman’s holiday, but necessary to keep in touch with the Party.
In the last few years I have attended to make the case for sport and physical activity on the fringe circuit and to meet with Shadow ministerial teams. There have been fewer of the ‘sports lobby’ at conferences over the rêvent years since the 2012 Olympics.
During the Corbyn era I felt a stranger at what felt like a cult gathering, not a political conference. I have written quite a bit about that period of the Party’s history, but as a reminder I decided to stay in the Party and make the case that if you are serious about wanting to run the country you have to have a serious political party that understands that. Running a country and winning elections is not the same as playing some political game to pass a motion at a political conference.
So I have returned from Liverpool experiencing probably my 25th Party conference with some simple reflections.
First. My time in front line politics is well and truly over. I have enjoyed the buzz of politics again, I love the idea of changing the world from Westminster and as I have told anybody who would listen I actually believe I would be a MUCH BETTER MP now than I was as the keen 32 year old who entered government in 1997. But helping potential candidates, watching the energy needed to win election, campaign and then represent a seat properly in a social media age requires a level of energy and commitment I am not sure I have at present. There are so many young bright candidates coming through my role is probably to help them. I think I can help in some areas of policy development and delivery around the margins. But my plans for retirement do mean being retired! I hate missing the buzz but that chapter of my life is a long way in the past.
Second. The mood at conference was serious enough to suggest that Labour is once again serious about the idea of winning.
We need to remind ourselves just how awful the election result in 2019 had been. It was the worst for LAbour since 1935. The idea that Labour could haul themselves back in one election cycle seemed impossible. But as you will have heard Labour and many commentators are starting to believe an election victory just might be possible. Recent polling figures give a hint that Labour could even manage a working majority.
It was not just me seeing this. I attended the Business Reception. Nobody attended these over the last few years. This time the room was packed with business leaders who have worked out they need to be talking to the Labour front bench as they might just be Ministers in the next 18 months. There was also a palpable recognition from them that the Labour leadership had changed and they were being listed to again. A successful economy requires a labour government and business to work in partnership. Look at the successful European economic models and this would never be questioned. It is sad that I still have to justify talking to business to some sections of the Party. Fortunately they are in a minority again.
Third. Keir Starmer was not quite so dull! I am comfortable with a PM who is labelled dull or boring. having watched the damage caused to a country by having a clown/entertainer in Johnson as our PM I would happily take serious. It has certainly not harmed many European economies like Germany to have a ‘dull’ Merkel in charge for 18 years. But I thought that Starmer did well yesterday in his speech. I started to see the ideas and plans emerging as they had in 1996 ahead of the 1997 victory. There is still 2 years to go so more will need to come. I am honest enough to to recognise that much of the current shift in polling is because first Johnson and now Truss have trashed the economy and the Tory brand. People are still nowhere near thinking about voting for Labour out of enthusiasm yet. That’s the next stage of this careful strategy Starmer has been following. Change the Party, change the perception of the Party, remind voters of the Tory record, reassure them we will be a safe pair of hands. The finally show and reward voters what a positive change a Labour government will be. I started seeing the start of that final phase yesterday. The idea of a British Energy company, investment in public services ahead of tax cuts for the rich. The dividing lines are back!